In a surreal change from the past year, we just hosted an in-person gathering of our Special Operations community in Tampa! 

There have definitely been some cobwebs to dust off (wait, I thought YOU ordered the badge paper?!) and some changes from our normal routine (there will be NO handshakes!), but our team is so happy with how it went and that we were able to take this small step back towards real life!

Read on to learn how it went…

Day 0

For those of you in the north, no that is NOT the temperature here in Tampa. In fact, it was sunny with an average temperature of 75°F / 24°C during all of our event days… aka the weather was perfect.

We did it! The 2021 GSOF Symposium - US (In. Person.)
Making the rounds with the van to get all of the event supplies onsite!
We did it! The 2021 GSOF Symposium - US (In. Person.)
Stu delivering drinks to the “worker people.”

Day 0 is the day that all of our team convenes onsite at the event venue to do some work! We built signs (again, so many months since we last did that!), stuffed attendee badges, set up the expo hall, made final contact with speakers, and ordered Uber Eats when we got hungry.

Despite being a little rusty, we were feeling pretty good about how much we accomplished by the end of the day. It took longer than expected, but when you’re able to stuff badges poolside with teammates that you’ve barely seen in person for a full year… it’s not so bad!

PLUS, Stu was in such a good mood about hosting the community that he offered to bring those of us working outside a round of beverages…twice!

Opportunities to Learn and Network…

Then came the moment of truth… Day 1 of an actual in-person Symposium. This is basically a whole new experience at this point, so we went with a nice phased approach…

We did it! The 2021 GSOF Symposium - US (In. Person.)
Ranae, our Director of Events (L) and Jenn, our Membership Services Manager, work the Registration Desk.

Phase 1: A SOF for Life Seminar hosted by The Honor Foundation brought in around 20 members of the Special Ops community who are within 2 years of leaving their active duty service. We are always so grateful for our partners at THF for coming to our Symposiums and putting on these 1-day seminars.

“It was extremely valuable, and it’s helped me change my whole outlook on what I want to do after I retire,” said one attendee. This is the kind of stuff we love to hear!

We did it! The 2021 GSOF Symposium - US (In. Person.)

Phase 2: The next attendees to start joining us at the Grand Hyatt were our exhibitors. Due to COVID we had a limited number of tabletop booths available throughout the foyer, but we were thrilled to see many familiar faces among the crew of exhibitors.

With only a few hours to add some needed pizzazz and swag to their tabletops, the exhibitors came in pop-ups, branded masks, raffle drawings, and whatever else might attract convention-rusty attendees.

Phase 3: Day 1 was primarily marketed as Professional Development (Pro-Dev) Day, so in addition to the SOF for Life Transition Seminar we were lucky enough to get three other opportunities locked in. 

These seminars SOLD OUT EARLY. Due to COVID we had limited room capacities, and boy did people try to get into sessions long after they sold out. These were FREE add-ons to Symposium registration, so it was just one more benefit to joining us in Tampa!

These sessions kicked off at 12:30 PM, so just after lunchtime a good amount of our attendees were already on-site and checked in.

Phase 4: The next group that came in was looking for Speed Networking. The point of the event is all in the name… to network, speedily! 

We had a well-thought out idea with numbered tables and a certain amount of people meeting in 8 minute increments. 

It didn’t happen that way, although not to brag, our Master of Ceremonies Jimmy Mott later called my efforts to make the rotations happen as scheduled “heroic.”

And while it didn’t quite pan out as envisioned, we were still able to get 100+ attendees to meet new people outdoors on the promenade! Mission accomplished.

Phase 5: We had well over 150 attendees checked in at this point, but a few more trickled in for the last event of the day: the Waterfront Welcome Reception. 

We did it! The 2021 GSOF Symposium - US (In. Person.)
The weather was spot-on for the Waterfront Welcome Reception!

This was another opportunity to network outside in lovely Tampa, but with even less structure and way more food (served in COVID-cautious single serving plates). 

Thanks to our Reception Sponsors–Crisis Response Company, Black Cape, and Navigators Global, we were able to provide attendees with live music, beverage tickets, and a beautiful sunset (ok, the Sponsors didn’t pay for that… probably).

The mood at the reception can only be described as “elated.” A large number of people thanked us for putting on an in-person event and taking the “ground-breaking step” to bring people back together. 

And it was a hard decision for us to make, but at the end of Day 1, we were pretty glad we made it.

A (Surprisingly?) Well-Oiled Machine

Usually we do two days of General Sessions at our Symposiums, but part of our revamped Symposium schedule cut that down to one day. However, we packed a LOT into the day and brought in some heavy hitters–both virtually and in person!

We’d be remiss not to start off with our amazing Master of Ceremonies, Jimmy Mott. He represents Leidos, a Global SOF Sustaining Partner and a Platinum Sponsor of the Symposium, but he’s also a longtime member of the special operations community. Jimmy was flexible with last minute changes and followed the script with an accuracy that we wish other people on our team could aspire to…. #STU.

One of our COVID precautions was having TWO podiums and thoroughly cleaning them in between each speaker, so Jimmy was up and down the stage steps multiple times to freshly Lysol-ed microphones to introduce some truly amazing speakers in the day’s first session.

We start every event by reminding attendees WHY they’re with us. It’s easy to get lost in the sauce of networking and working on business development and forgetting the true reason for the season.

U.S. Army Special Forces Colonel Retired Mark Rosengard helped us with that mission for this event. His emphasis was on teamwork– “Be all that you can be” was a terrible Army slogan, as was “Army of One.” But he noted that the Army, and with it other branches and units, are more correctly focusing on the importance of a diverse team, of partnerships, and of seeing the “third side of the nickel.” 

We did it! The 2021 GSOF Symposium - US (In. Person.)
General Talib Shaghati Mshari al Kenani speaks at the Symposium.

The next speaker was a former recipient of the Global SOF Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg for his many accolades and honors. General Talib Shaghati Mshari al Kenani, former Commander of the Counter Terrorism Service for Iraq, spoke through a translator about his experiences in standing up the service. 

“We work as one team with our blood mixed as we fight the common terrorist threat,” he said, before going through a timeline full of personal anecdotes and the reasons behind many decisions and situations.

The final speaker before a networking break joined us via Zoom, and we have to give a huge shoutout to our A/V team at DCE productions for the seamless execution. We were a bit nervous about how it would play out, and it was SO smooth!

Dr. Stacey Dixon, Deputy Director for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), illuminated the screens as soon as Jimmy introduced her to provide her keynote remarks. 

Dr. Dixon spoke in depth about how her organization is working to be “stronger, smarter, and better than they were before COVID19,” making changes to use more commercial data, enable remote working, and change “obstacles into opportunities.” 

We did it! The 2021 GSOF Symposium - US (In. Person.)
Dr. Dixon speaks virtually to our Symposium attendees.

I suspect that attendees thought her remarks were just pre-recorded until she started taking audience questions… and once that worked, quite a few people took to the standing microphones to take advantage of this opportunity to ask Dr. Dixon questions.

Our events usually feature many networking breaks, enabling attendees to check out the expo hall and enjoy some sponsorships. That morning, pre-General Session, featured a Continental Breakfast sponsored by WWT and ServiceNow, as well as All Day Coffee sponsored by Worldwide Risk Management

True to the name, the All Day Coffee was still available at this next networking break, as were the 25+ tabletop exhibitors. No matter who speaks it always gets progressively more difficult to get people back into the ballroom, just because conversations grow more in-depth and business really begins to develop.

We did it! The 2021 GSOF Symposium - US (In. Person.)
Panelists discuss Competition with China.

However, the only panel of the week brought in an audience that paid rapt attention…because the topic was competition with China. In another impressive A/V feat, we had moderator Dr. Seth Jones on stage with experts LTC (Ret) Dennis Blasko and Dr. Chris Marsh while Lt Gen (Ret) In Bum Chun joined in on the discussion virtually.

The conversation wasn’t exactly uplifting. Blasko stated: “The US-China Relationship is at the lowest point I’ve seen it since I started learning Chinese in 1970.” Chun noted that current relations are “a serious problem…It’s no secret that China wants to surpass the U.S. military by 2050.” 

Despite the many issues highlighted, none of the speakers saw the issues as irreversible. But important steps specific to China need to be taken to change the current trajectory of this relationship.

Being the “Partner of Choice”

With fresh fear of global competition top-of-mind, we dismissed the ballroom for lunch!  The Grand Hyatt did a grade-A job of putting together individually packaged sandwiches and salad that attendees could easily grab and go.

We did it! The 2021 GSOF Symposium - US (In. Person.)
Ms. Heidi Grant answers questions from the audience.

With spaced outdoor seating, there were plenty of spots for our folks to head outside and eat while continuing conversations from the expo.

After lunch we had two Senior Leaders Conversations. The first featured two amazing women: Ms. Heidi Grant, the Director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, and Ms. Meaghan Keeler-Pettigrew, COO of the Global SOF Foundation.

Ms. Grant provided opening remarks before taking questions from Meaghan and the audience. “Security cooperation has become a priority mission for the DoD,” she said as she highlighted the capabilities and future of her organization. “And through our programs, the U.S. remains the partner of choice.”

Whether it was the impact of her words or attendees just becoming more comfortable, she fielded multiple questions from the audience! Ms. Grant was incredibly generous with her time, meeting with our international attendees after she spoke and she could even be spotted answering questions for other attendees in the event foyer.

The next Senior Leader Conversation brought in our final virtual speaker, Major General Dagvin Anderson, current Commander of SOCAFRICA. Due to his location, he Zoomed in, but Mr. Rob Akin (repping our Corporate Partner Crisis Response Company) asked his questions in person from the stage.

Some of MG Anderson’s first words were: “If you think you understand Africa, then you haven’t been around Africa enough.” That alone highlighted that there was a lot to talk about so this session went about 20 minutes long, but it was very informative so no one was complaining. 

We did it! The 2021 GSOF Symposium - US (In. Person.)

MG Anderson spoke about the problems with viewing Africa as one entity and the value of Operation Flintlock, an annual exercise in Africa that he thinks will continue to grow and shape special operations in the continent. 

After a final networking energy break, sponsored by Textron Aviation Special Missions, we were back on stage with the final speaker: Major General Sean M. Farrell, Director for Force Structure, Requirements, Resources and Strategic Assessments at U.S. Special Operations Command.

That’s a mouthful, so many know Maj. Gen. Farrell as the J8 of USSOCOM. He came in to talk about USSOCOM’s resourcing challenges and the importance of fostering partnerships to accomplish the mission. 

We can’t end a Symposium without some all important “Thank Yous.” It had been over 2 years since our last US Symposium, so we had a LOT of new Corporate Partners to acknowledge, so we want to say Thank You to all of those representatives for joining us to receive a coveted Partner Shield.

We did it! The 2021 GSOF Symposium - US (In. Person.)

We also gave a final thanks to all of our event Sponsors… and in case we missed any of them in this blog, here’s a quick list:

  • Platinum: Leidos
  • Silver: JFD North America
  • Bronze: Blue Light, Performance Drone Works
  • Promenade Cafe: ShotOver
  • Waterfront Welcome Reception: Crisis Response Company, Black Cape, Navigators Global
  • Continental Breakfast: World Wide Technology, ServiceNow
  • Swag Bags: Textron Aviation Defense
  • Afternoon Energy Break: Textron Aviation Special Missions
  • Signage and Registration: CACI
  • All Day Coffee: Worldwide Risk Management
  • Lanyards: Performance Drone Works
  • Program Guide: MAG Aerospace


In Sum…

We did it! The 2021 GSOF Symposium - US (In. Person.)

In the words of our CEO and President Stu Bradin, “If you ever doubted what we are doing, I hope that doubt is gone. What you did was amazing and truly world-class.” 

Obviously we’re biased, but we heard similar sentiment echoed across the week and with how much uncertainty we’ve felt over the past year it was seriously encouraging to hear. 

All in all, the event had 273 attendees–surpassing our lofty goal of 250 people. That included attendees from 16 Partner Nations and 27% came from Military, Government, Academia, or Non-Profits. 

It’s a time unlike any other, but we’re never afraid to be the ones to take a first step. Thanks again to everyone who took that step with us. 

PS: Here are the event photos… video coming soon.

How did this work with COVID?

We of course need to mention that we took many precautions for the COVID19 pandemic. We won’t go into long detail here on a list of the standard items that you’ve heard relentlessly over the past year, but we do have it available on our website.

We did it! The 2021 GSOF Symposium - US (In. Person.)

Fun fact: The event venue has its GBAC STAR™ Facility Accreditation, the highest certification for sanitation and cleanliness available. That’s good to hear even on a non-COVID day!

As discussed, we also held almost all of our networking opportunities outside. From Speed Networking to the Waterfront Welcome Reception to The Honor Foundation Fundraiser, if you were chatting with other attendees odds are high that you weren’t doing it indoors.

Military bonus–a great many people told me that they’d already received at least one shot of a vaccine, which was stellar news and very reassuring overall.

So while there is an inherent risk of contracting COVID19 in any group activity these days, we put the work into reducing that risk for our team and our attendees. 

So when can we do this again?

2021 is going to be an interesting year between what happens in person and what doesn’t. But we can tell you that we have a few things coming up that, pending something really crazy, will be happening in person!

  • 2021 Global SOF Anniversary Reception: We’re turning 7 and we’re celebrating, as always, on the Monday of SOFIC week. While SOFIC was announced to be virtual, our celebration is happening in-person.

    Help us figure out how big we should go by filling out this short survey.
  • 2021 GSOF Symposium – Europe: It didn’t happen in 2020 but it IS happening in 2021. We’re heading to Warsaw, Poland, from 26-28 October. We’re looking forward to being vaccinated and convening our European community in this Easter European hub.
  • 2021 Modern Warfare Week: A familiar tale for this event… the 2020 edition was cancelled. But we’re partnering again with USASOC to host a Symposium this November, and we’ll also be having an Expo and Demo Day in adjacent events.

So there are multiple opportunities coming up, and we can’t wait to see you all again. Stay safe and healthy, and we’ll see you soon…

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